Kalani Simpson


By Kalani Simpson

Sunday, July 8, 2001

The old man and the ditch

THE man on horseback knew that the irrigation system wasn't working as it should -- he could see that at first glance. And he knew why, too. It was those kids again. The Camp 5 boys. And so with a kick to his mount, he was off to investigate, off to chase those rascals away once again, once and for all.

The boys had done what they were always doing. They had dropped the gate to make it high tide in the irrigation ditch, so they could swim.

There was only one pool on Maui in those days, and it was for the families of the plantation supervisors only. The camp boys, meanwhile, swam in the ditches of the sugar cane fields when they could. When they could get away with it.

"Da luna!"

The horse charged up, and the boys scattered, running off naked. They left their clothes. The luna would never bother to leave his horse, they knew, so the clothes were safe. They would get them later. Panting, they hid, waiting for him to go, waiting until they could return. He didn't know it, but Keo Nakama's career as an elite athlete had already begun.

The story has been told and retold and retold again. And yet still it gets forgotten.

Keo Nakama is 81 now.

He has had a swim meet named after him for 53 years, and yesterday, he was there again, happily fading into the background amid the splatters and splashes and shouts.

That's all some people know now. He is the man the meet is named for.

For many, the stories have faded.

But to others, the lucky ones, the stories are alive. You can tell by their faces, as he slowly circles the pool. They know who he is. Their eyes light up, and they want pictures and handshakes, and Mr. Nakama obliges them.

From Fiji to Florida, he knows their hometown, or the one next to it. He has traveled the globe in his time, met many people, learned many things.

He was a world record holder and multi-time national and Pan-American Games swimming champion. A collegiate hero at Ohio State. A longtime local coach. Then at age 41, he was a hero again, the first person to swim the Molokai Channel.

AND IT ALL STARTED in the irrigation ditches, a true story, Maui's "Chariots of Fire," Hawaii's "Hoosiers." In the 1930s and 40s the story of Nakama and Bill Smith, Jose Balmores and Halo Hirose and others swimming the canals under the tutelage of Soichi Sakamoto was national news. The irrigation ditch gang became the best swimmers in the world, and their origins became legend.

But at each Keo Nakama Invitational, a new generation needs to be told the tale.

"Stand up!" Maui Swim Club's Spencer Shiraishi tells his charges. "Shake his hand! He graduated from Maui High. He was the first world champion from Maui."

In the early days, the camp boys could only jump in the pool when a regular meet was finished, and they practiced their turns while the pool was being cleaned. But Sakamoto -- "Coach" -- had by now joined them and had started working miracles. He used never-ending practice and innovative training techniques. And he held out a big carrot: Travel.

"When you were on Maui in those days there were no airplanes," Nakama says. "To come to Honolulu was a big deal, a really big deal."

Overnight, the team was 70 strong, Nakama said, and Sakamoto started the 3YSC -- the Three Year Swim Club -- to shoot for the 1940 Olympics. Soon, with his ditch gang showing astounding progress, Sakamoto got the sugar company to help build a new pool -- one his boys could swim in. After that, anything could happen. And with Keo Nakama at the forefront of the charge, it did.

Though World War II wiped out his Olympic opportunities, Nakama became one of the world's best, an island icon. The leader of a wave of Hawaii greats.

But nowadays swimmers aren't celebrities, and Hawaii's swimming glory days seem long ago and far away.

Keo Nakama is 81 now.

Yesterday, a young boy from the mainland waited patiently while Nakama told stories of Ohio and Panama and Puunene. The boy explained that he was hoping for Mr. Nakama's autograph on his swim bag, where he had signatures from Gary Hall and several other Olympians.

Nakama was right up there, as great as all those guys, the boy was told.

The boy said, "I know."

The stories are still alive.

This is good.

Kalani Simpson's column runs Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays.
He can be reached at

E-mail to Sports Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin